Because her parents worked for the penitentiary system, a large part of local cartoonist Colleen Frakes’ youth was spent on McNeil Island, the last prison island in the United States not connected to the mainland by roads. Though McNeil was relatively close to Tacoma on the south Sound, it was still disconnected from civilization in nearly every way; most prison employees lived in a company town on the island and used infrequent ferry service to connect to civilization. Frakes had to take a ferry to a bus to school every day, her internet was charge-by-the-minute dialup, and her neighbors were all families who worked at the prison.
Prison Island is Frakes’s comic-book memoir about growing up on McNeil, and despite the salacious title Frakes spends the first few pages assuring the reader that her experiences were probably not as dramatic as they might be expecting. “I felt safer there than any other place I’ve ever lived,” Frakes tells the reader in an opening monologue, even though “[s]ome things were weird. Like we had to lock up our pool toys so they couldn’t be used in an escape attempt.” While the outrageous Con Air jail-break fantasias you summon to mind when you read the words “Prison Island” don’t materialize, it would be inaccurate to describe Frakes’s childhood as “typical.” In a flashback, a very young Frakes and her sister crowd their mother as she returns from prison guard school. They ask what she did that day for training and their mother calmly responds, “I got tear-gassed and I did a lot of running.”
Many of the anecdotes in Prison Island are about the banality of youth, even in the most unusual of situations. Frakes and a friend get bored and try to order a pizza, but the logistics are incredibly unwieldy; their plan involves ordering the pizza to the ferry dock, taking a boat over, picking up the pizza, and bringing it back home on the ferry. Things get even more complicated when the pizza delivery driver doesn’t show up on time. Every aspect of youth that most American teenagers take for granted, like hosting sleepovers and birthday parties, is endlessly complicated by life on McNeil.
The book is narrated in flashback by an adult Frakes; the framing story involves a bittersweet reunion as McNeil Island Corrections Center is shut down and abandoned. “Well, honey, the state is broke,” Frakes’s father explains to her on the phone, and Washington “can save around two million a year by closing the place.” Frakes returns to the island to reminisce with her family and attend the decommissioning ceremonies. Her parents are surprised that she and her sister have such fond memories of the place since they recall the kids as being miserable most of the time; Frakes insists that she thinks of it as the place where she grew up. The truth is probably somewhere between those two accounts.
Prison Island was published by Zest Books, a young adult imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and it’s easy to see why kids might be drawn to the book. For one thing, there’s obviously the whole prison angle — to most kids, prison is as unthinkable and unyielding as death — and for another thing, the story juxtaposes the prisoners on the island with the lives of teenagers in a deeply compelling way. In many ways, teenagers are second-class citizens. At their best they have the reasoning capability of adults, but their daily existence is still beholden to the whims of adults. If you’re fourteen and your parents decide to move you to an island in the middle of nowhere, there’s not much you can do about it. For thoughtful, obedient kids like Frakes, their life is not their own to control.
Frakes doesn’t overdramatize the story, and she certainly doesn’t overplay her own plight as a profoundly bored teenager growing up in what amounts to one of the most rural spots in Washington state. She lived a comfortable life in a beautiful setting filled with natural wonders, and even the jailbreak that ruined her birthday one year wasn’t so bad, all things considered. In a way, the normalcy is the weirdest part of the book.
Frakes’s artwork is perfect for this style of reminiscence: thick, inky black lines and the pure white of the page, with a little grey for shading. The body language on the page is exquisite; at one point in one of her monologues directly to the reader, Frakes talks about a certain aspect of uneasiness of her home life and she twists her fingers up and clenches her teeth. In just a few lines, this drawing of the adult Frakes has perfectly related the tension of teenage Frakes to the reader. On the cover of the book, teenage Frakes sits on the ferry, clutching her bag tightly to her chest as she stares at a handcuffed and manacled prisoner sitting next to a bored guard as, outside, the sunset glints on the water. It’s a scene that mirrors the tension of someone who’s thinking about reading the book — “it’s about prison? I wonder if it’ll be all violent and stuff?” — while hinting at Frakes’s more expansive points, reassuring the reader that the story is about more than just fear and lawbreakers.
To call the art “sketchy” would be an insult to the obvious craft that goes into every page of Prison Island, but Frakes’s illustrations do play with a certain unfinished quality that rewards investigation. Most beginners’ guides for artists working in ink remind novices to connect the lines on the page. Even if a viewer doesn’t notice on a conscious level, for instance, that the doorjamb doesn’t connect with the floor, the argument goes, they’ll subconsciously note the white space between the door and the floor and they’ll consider the illustration to be “unfinished” somehow. Without those connections, amateurs are told, everything seems less real.
But Frakes leaves white space all over the place. Fences and telephone wires don’t always connect together; sometimes they just end, floating in the white space of the page. A ferry at the dock is represented by a few windows and a vast expanse of paper. Some ceiling beams just float off into a grey nothingness. The quality of Frakes’s work makes it obvious that this is not laziness or incompetence. So what’s going on? Is Frakes hinting at the fading of memory? (All the scenes set in the present, with Frakes directly addressing the reader, just feature Frakes standing in a rounded spotlight in darkness, with no unfinished backgrounds behind her.)
Or is there a broader message, here? One of the few illustrations of the correctional facility on the island in the book starts out as solid as any other building, but as the edges of the panel approach, the building just dissolves into cross-hatching and the graphite-grey sky. Perhaps Frakes is demonstrating that her memory of the building is incomplete — her parents intentionally did not talk much about work at home, in part to not scare the kids but also, decently, because “people have a right to privacy, even if they are in prison.”
Or maybe it’s got something to do with the idea of security. Even one of the most secure buildings in Washington State isn’t a complete and self-sufficient system. The prison affected every single one of the adults who worked there, and all the kids of those adults, and all their relationships with everyone around them. You might think that a prison needs walls in order to be a prison, but the truth is that walls can’t keep those stories locked inside. They can’t stop the outside world from affecting the inhabitants. There’s no such thing in this life as a closed system, or an impenetrable wall, or a place where nobody can touch you.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant